What makes a good judge, anyway?

People involved with courts agree that to be a good judge, one must first be a good lawyer.

“It is critically important that these lifelong appointments are made to individuals who have courtroom or trial experience . . . particularly in the district court, where the pace is extremely quick and relentless,” Hillsborough county attorney Marguerite Wageling said. “They are called upon on a moment’s notice to make decisions on motions to suppress and guilt or innocence.”

Besides legal cunning, Wageling and veteran Nashua attorney David Gottesman cited a less tangible quality: respect. Judges should have earned respect for their work, both in legal circles and in the larger community. They should be seen as intelligent and knowledgeable, fair and ethical.

“Somebody who is, at the very least, a brilliant lawyer,” Hollis Police Chief Richard Darling said. “Somebody who can temper justice with mercy. . . . Somebody who can be evenhanded and deal with everyone the same way.”

A dash of gravitas doesn’t hurt, either.

District court judges in particular should be part of the community in which they serve, Chief District Court Justice Edwin Kelly and Nashua attorney Andrea Amodeo-Vickery agreed.

“There is no district court that is more than 20 miles from the town that it serves, and that’s by legislative design,” Kelly said. Legislators “made the decision that they want these courts to be responsive to the communities. . . . It was intended that those courts be staffed by judges . . . who understand the community.”

District courts handle landlord and tenant disputes, small claims cases, juvenile and misdemeanor criminal cases. They handle far more cases, and affect more people, than higher courts.

“It’s important for a judge to live in the community so that he or she understands the dynamics of that community,” Amodeo-Vickery said. “Being a judge is more than just applying the law, it’s understanding the people.”

Kelly has one more criterion for district court judges. They should like that level of work, he said, and see it as important.

“Many lawyers see work in a district court as where they cut their teeth . . . and a stop on the way to becoming trial lawyers in a larger court,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t be looking for that person.”